The Pacific Rim National ParkReserve is a magnificent amalgam of mountains, coastal rainforest, wild beaches and unspoiled marine landscapes stretching intermittently for 125km between the towns of Tofino in the north and Port Renfrew to the south. It divides into three distinct areas: Long Beach, which is the most popular; the Broken Group Islands, hundreds of islets only accessible to sailors and kayakers; and the West Coast Trail, a tough but popular long-distance hike. The whole area has also become a magnet for surfing and whale-watching. By taking the MV Frances Barkley from Port Alberni to Bamfield or Ucluelet and back, and combining this with shuttle buses or scheduled buses from Victoria, Port Alberni and Nanaimo, a wonderfully varied combination of itineraries is possible around the region.
Lying north of Long Beach, Tofino, once a fishing village, has been dramatically changed by tourism, but with its natural charm, scenic position and plentiful accommodation, it still makes the best base for general exploration. Ucluelet, 40km to the southeast, is comparatively less attractive, but almost equally geared to providing tours and accommodating the park’s 800,000 or so annual visitors.Unless you fly in, you’ll enter the park on Hwy-4 from Port Alberni, which means the first part you’ll see is Long Beach, shadowed along its length to Tofino by Hwy-4. Note that the beautiful (105km) stretch of road from Port Alberni to the park’s visitor centre requires careful driving – much of it is windy and adjoined by sheer drops. At “The Junction”, where Hwy-4 forks east for Ucluelet and west for Tofino, you’ll find the Pacific Rim National Park visitor information centre. Bamfield, a tiny and picturesque community with a limited amount of in-demand accommodation, lies much farther southeast (it’s 190km from Ucluelet by road) and is known mainly as the northern trailhead of the West Coast Trail.
The weather on this part of the island boasts short but sunny summers and a soaking rainy season (an average of 330cm of rain falls annually), but the motto for this part of the world is that there’s no such thing as bad weather – just the wrong clothes; so bring boots and a rain coat and spend your time admiring crashing Pacific breakers, hiking the backcountry and surfing. In the off-season (Jan & Feb), storm-watching has become a popular pastime, and rates for accommodation tend to be cheaper.
The most accessible of the park’s components, Long Beach is just what it says: a long tract of wild, windswept sand and rocky points stretching for about 30km south from Tofino to Ucluelet. Around 19km can be hiked unbroken from Schooner Bay in the west to Half Moon Bay in the east. The snow-covered peaks of the Mackenzie Range provide a scenic backdrop, while behind the beach lies a thick, lush canopy of coastal rainforest. The white-packed sand itself is the sort of primal seascape that is all but extinct in much of the world, scattered with beautiful, sea-sculpted driftwood, smashed by surf, broken by crags and dotted with islets and rock pools oozing with marine life.
Long Beach, while a distinct beach in itself, also rather loosely refers to several other beaches to either side, the relative merits of which are outlined opposite. If you haven’t done so already, driving Hwy-4 along the beach area is the best time to call in at the Pacific Rim National Park Visitor Centre.
Long Beach is noted for its wildlife, the BC coastline reputedly having more marine species than any other temperate area in the world. As well as the smaller stuff in tidal pools – starfish, anemones, snails, sponges and more – there are large mammals like whales and sea lions, in addition to thousands of migrating birds (especially in Oct & Nov), notably pintails, mallards, black brants and Canada geese. Better weather brings out lots of beachcombers (Japanese glass fishing floats are highly coveted), clam diggers, anglers, surfers, canoeists, windsurfers and divers, though the water is usually too cold to venture in without a wet suit, and rip currents and rogue lumps of driftwood crashed around by the waves can make swimming dangerous. And finally, resist the temptation to pick up shells as souvenirs – it’s against park regulations.
As this is a national park, some of Long Beach and its flanking stretches of coastline have been very slightly tamed for human consumption, but in a most discreet and tasteful manner. The best way to get a taste of the area is to walk the beaches or forested shorelines themselves – there are plenty of hidden coves – or to follow any of nine very easy and well-maintained hiking trails.
With an eye on the weather and tide, you can walk more or less anywhere on and around Long Beach. Various trails and roads drop to the beach from the main Hwy-4 road to Tofino, including nine official trails (two are closed), most of them short and very easy – you could tackle a few in the course of a leisurely drive along the road. All the paths are clearly marked from Hwy-4, but it’s worth picking up a guide from the visitor centre. Trail specifics are highlighted below.
1 & 2 Willowbrae and Halfmoon Bay (1.4km and 500m). Linked, level wooded trail that drops steeply onto tiny Half Moon Bay or the larger Florencia Bay to the north.
3 Closed for safety reasons.
4 South Beach (800m). Runs above forest-fringed coves before reaching South Beach, famous for its rock-crashing breakers.
5 Nuu-chah-nulth (2.5km). Follows the South Beach trail for a bit, then passes through rainforest.
6 Shorepine Bog (800m). Wheelchair-accessible boardwalk trail that winds through fascinating stunted bog vegetation; trees which are just a metre or so tall here can be hundreds of years old.
7 Rainforest (1km). Two small loops that follow a boardwalk through virgin temperate rainforest.
8 Combers Beach (500m). Idyllic walk along a sugary sand beach.
9 Schooner Cove (1km). Leads through superb tranches of rainforest to an extremely scenic beach at Schooner Cove.
10 Radar Hill (100m). Steep viewpoint with magnificent sea and mountain views.
One of North America’s classic walks, the West Coast Trail (WCT) starts 5km south of Bamfield and traverses exceptional coastal scenery for 75km to Port Renfrew. It’s no stroll, and though very popular it still requires experience of longer walks, proper equipment and a fair degree of fitness (and numbers are strictly limited). Still, many people do the first easy stage as a day-trip from Bamfield. Reckon on six to eight days for the full trip; carry all your own food and be prepared for rain, treacherous stretches, thick soaking forest and almost utter isolation.
Mariners long ago dubbed this area of coastline the “graveyard of the Pacific”, and when the SS Valencia went down with nearly all hands here (a few of the crew survived) in 1906 the government was persuaded that constructing a trail would at least give stranded sailors a chance to walk to safety along the coast. The path followed a basic telegraph route that linked Victoria with outlying towns and lighthouses, and was kept open by linesmen and lighthouse keepers until the 1960s, when it fell into disrepair. Early backpackers reblazed the old trail, which now passes through the land of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation around Bamfield, Ditidaht First Nation country in the trail’s middle section and ends in Pacheedaht First Nation land near Port Renfrew.
Weather is a key factor in planning any trip; the trail is only open May to September, July and August being the driest months; during that period it’s patrolled by wardens, and locals are on hand to ferry you (for a fee) across some of the wider rivers en route.
While TOFINO is showing the effects of its ever-increasing tourist influx, locals are keeping development to a minimum, clearly realizing they have a vested interest in preserving the salty, waterfront charm that brought them – and visitors – here in the first place. Sleepy in the off-season, the place erupts into a frenzy during the summer.
Crowning a narrow spit, the fishing village is graced with magnificent views. There’s an unexpectedly rich restaurant scene, as well as top-notch accommodation and a wide variety of boat and seaplane tours. Most of the latter have a whale-watching, surfing (Canada’s best surf is close at hand) and fishing angle or provide a means to travel out to the nearby islands and hot springs.
It’s worth visiting the small Whale Centre at 411 Campbell St, home to artefacts centred on local seafaring and First Nations culture. Another notable spot is the Eagle Aerie Gallery, 350 Campbell St, a gallery housed in a traditional longhouse-style building with a cedar interior.
Three fine beaches lie southeast of town: MacKenzie Beach, Cox Bay and Chestermano Beach (for access to the latter take Lynn Rd right just beyond the Dolphin Motel). The quietest beach around is Tonquin: ask at the visitor centre for directions.
There are plenty of whale-watching operators in town (the season runs from March to mid-Oct), most offering similarly priced excursions: all you need do is decide what sort of boat you want to go out on – Zodiacs (inflatables), which are bouncier, more thrilling and potentially wetter, or rigid-hull cruisers (covered or uncovered), which are more sedate (see Whale-watching in Pacific Rim National Park). If you take tours to Meares Islands and Hot Springs Cove, you stand a good chance of seeing whales en route – some operators try to combine whale-watching with excursions. Reckon on spending around $90 for a two- or three-hour trip in a Zodiac or rigid-hull. Operators in Tofino include:
Jamie’s Whaling Station 606 Campbell St t 250 725 3919, t 1 800 667 9913, w jamies.com. Founded in 1982, this offers a whale-watching choice of Zodiac boats ($99) or the 20m Leviathan II, which comes with heated cabin ($109). If you don’t see whales, Jamie’s offers vouchers which can be used on another trip. Also runs the same themed tours as Ocean Outfitters. Has another location in Ucluelet at 168 Fraser Lane (t 1 877 726 7444).
Ocean Outfitters 368 Main St t 250 725 2866, t 1 877 906 2326, w oceanoutfitters.bc.ca. Offers 2.5hr whale-watching tours (March to mid-Oct) on rigid ($89) or Zodiac boats ($89), as well as bear-watching (April–Oct; $89), hot springs (year-round; $119) and Meares Island tours (year-round; $25).
Remote Passages 51 Wharf St t 250 725 3330, t 1 800 666 9833, w remotepassages.com. Also long-established (since 1986) is Remote Passages, another laudable operation running whale-watching (Zodiacs, $89; cabin, $95), hot springs ($115), bear-watching ($89) and sea-kayaking tours ($79).
West Coast Aquatic Safaris 101a Fourth St t 250 725 9227, w whalesafaris.com. Offers whale-watching tours, sheltered fishing outings ideal for families or novices, as well as three daily trips to the Hot Springs Cove ($129).
In addition to these tours, many of the companies listed above also offer bear-watching, kayaking, hiking, fishing charters and other tours. Guided hikes and easy nature rambles in the forest and along the seashore are offered by several companies; contact the visitor centre in Tofino for details. Tofino is quickly becoming the surfing capital of Canada thanks to some enormous Pacific waves.
Braedy Mack Charters 899 Brabant Place t 250 726 8499, t 1 888 732 3077, w fishingtofino.ca. A long-established fishing specialist who’s quite happy to have novices aboard.
Paddle West Kayaking 606 Campbell St t 250 725 3232, w paddlewestkayaking.com. For kayaks (no experience required), this operator offers 2hr 30min, 4hr and 6hr trips ($59/75/99). Also runs longer, customized tours with lodge accommodation or wilderness camping.
Surf Sister 625 Campbell St t 250 725 4456, w surfsister.com. Learn to surf with a friendly local company founded in 1999, whose all-female instructors will have even the most timid novice up on their feet and catching their first wave by the end of a lesson. Wetsuits and boards are provided ($79).
Located 8km south of the main Hwy-4 Port Alberni junction, UCLUELET means “People of the Sheltered Bay”, from the aboriginal word ucluth – “wind blowing in from the bay”. It was named by the Nuu-chah-nulth, who lived here for centuries before the arrival of whites who came to exploit some of the world’s richest fishing grounds immediately offshore. Today the port is still the third largest in BC by volume of fish landed, a trade that gives the town a slightly dispersed appearance and an industrial fringe, and makes it less appealing than Tofino, if nonetheless a popular base for anglers, whale-watchers, watersports enthusiasts and visitors headed for Long Beach to the north.
The nearest trails are at Terrace Beach, east of the town off Peninsula Road before the lighthouse. A longer and more coherent hike, the Wild Pacific Trail, stretches 14km and links with Halfmoon Bay near Florencia Bay and Long Beach in the national park. The trail starts at the end of Coast Guard Drive, passing the nearby Amphitrite Point Lighthouse (which has great views of the sea and is perfect for storm-watching) and the He-Tin-Kis Park, where a boardwalk enables you to complete this first section as a loop.
The Pacific Rim National Park is one of the world’s best areas for whale-watching, thanks to its location on the main migration routes, food-rich waters and numerous sheltered bays. It’s easy to find a boat going out from Tofino, Ucluelet or Bamfield, most charging around $60–80 a head for the trip depending on duration (usually 2–3hr).
Even if you don’t take a boat trip, you stand a chance of seeing whales from the coast as they dive, when you can locate their tails, or during fluking, when the animals surface and “blow” three or four times.